Burma’s long history starts with the early peoples who settled along the coast and in the Irrawaddy Valley, the advent of Buddhism more than two thousand years ago, the arrival of Bamar and Shan peoples from the north, and the rise of Bamar and Shan city-states and kingdoms. The colonial period, beginning with the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, ended with independence in 1948. Recent history begins with independence and touches on the complicated events since then, from the military coup in 1962 to the recent opening of the country to democracy.
The Annotated Bibliography lists a number of books about Burma, written over the years and from many perspectives. In the meantime, here is a quick summary of Burmese history. You may find it helpful to consult the map on page 7 from time to time, since terrain and geography have played an important role in events.
Archeologists tell us that there were agricultural settlements in the Irrawaddy Valley more than twenty-five hundred years ago, and these eventually developed into small city-states. The Pyu people, farmers and traders who controlled the area, spoke a Tibeto-Burman language. As early as two thousand years ago, they were trading gold, silver, and other valuables from the valley and surrounding hills with China and India.
Farther south, even before the time of Alexander the Great (some twenty-three hundred years ago), there was trade between southern India and the coastal area of Burma around Moulmein. The first kingdom for which there are records is Subanabhumi, a Mon kingdom that stretched north from Moulmein and was dominant in the region in the ninth through twelfth centuries (perhaps earlier—experts differ).
It was the strong trading connection between southern India and Burma that brought Theravada Buddhism to Burma, and from there into present-day Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. With Buddhism came written scriptures. (Theravada scriptures are written in the Pali language, rather than the Sanskrit of Mahayana Buddhism, and the practices and beliefs are somewhat different.) Kings and other rich patrons established monastic centers of learning, and once Buddhism fell into decline in India, Burmese scholarship became the most respected in the Pali tradition. (The tradition of monastic learning continues in Burma today.)
Starting fifteen hundred to two thousand years ago, the Tai peoples of southern China (ancestors of the present-day Shan, Tai Koen, Lao, and Thai) started moving south into Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and northeastern Burma. During the same period, people from the Nanzhao kingdom in the Dali/Lake Erhai area of Yunnan began to migrate south and west. It’s generally agreed that they are the forebears of the current majority Bamar population of Burma and the source of the Burmese language. They displaced or absorbed the Pyu in the rich Irrawaddy Valley in central Burma, in the area around present-day Mandalay and Bagan (or Pagan, as it may be written).
There are few written records of the early centuries of Bamar control in this region. Detailed history starts with King Anawrahta (also spelled Aniruddha), who is in many ways the founder of Burma. Starting in 1044, he conquered huge territories from his base in Bagan, and by the time of his death his armies controlled much of present-day Burma. In Bagan itself, Anawrahta built temples and palaces; the ruins still remind visitors of that early glory.
Over the ensuing centuries a series of kings took power, fought to expand their kingdoms, and rarely died in their beds, just as Europe’s history from 1200 to 1600 involved wars and power struggles. The kings in the Irrawaddy Valley also had to face invasions from the north, including the Mongols in 1271 and the Qing (Manchu) army in the 1760s. In each case the invaders eventually were repelled. The Bamar kings built a succession of capital cities in the region around Mandalay and Bagan (the remains of which now attract tourists).
Portuguese and other European traders began doing business with Burma starting around 1500, bringing goods from Europe and other Asian regions and trading them for gold, silver, jade, and precious stones.
The most memorable of the Burmese kings in this era, still celebrated today by the Burmese army, is King Bayinnaung, who in the mid-1500s conquered almost all of present-day Burma, as well as Thailand and Laos. His capital was at Ava, which is on an island in the Irrawaddy River just south of present-day Mandalay. (Early writers about Burma often refer to the country as Ava.)
Two centuries later, another powerful king, Alaungpaya, began campaigns in the 1750s that resulted in the reunification of a then-fragmented kingdom. He conquered the Mon kingdom, whose capital was Pegu (now called Bago) and which controlled the Irrawaddy Delta. He also attacked eastward and south, conquering the Tenasserim coast (then under Thai control) and the whole of what is present-day Thailand, and sacking the Thai royal capital Ayuthaya in 1767.
But in the early nineteenth century, the military confidence of the Burmese ran up against the expansionist plans of the British in India. The result was the First Anglo-Burmese War, in 1824, which ended with the defeat of the Burmese in 1826 and the ceding to Britain of most of the coast, from Arakan in the west to Tenasserim, the tail-of-the-kite strip in the far south.
By the Treaty of Yandabo, Britain, the victor in the 1824–1826 war, was entitled to huge indemnity payments from Burma, which impoverished the country. The British set up a trading port at Akyub (present-day Sittwe) at the mouth of the Kaladan River on the Arakan (now Rakhine) coast. They developed what became their principal trading city for most of the nineteenth century, Moulmein, at the mouth of the Salween River, southeast of Rangoon. They also began to exploit the rich hardwood forests of Burma, cutting teak trees up the Salween River and its tributaries and floating them downstream to Moulmein.
Because of historical trading ties, the population of Burma already included people from present-day India and Bangladesh, but once the British arrived there was an influx of South Asians from British India. These newcomers settled in Mandalay, Rangoon, and Moulmein, as well as other towns, starting businesses and small manufacturing concerns.
In the late 1850s, after the accession of King Mindon, the Burmese capital was moved from Ava to a newly built complex at Mandalay, a few miles up the Irrawaddy. A generation later, in 1885, during the third Anglo-Burmese War, the British marched up the Irrawaddy Valley from Rangoon and captured Mandalay and the king, Thibaw, whom they sent into exile in India. The British then loosely controlled the whole of present-day Burma. The extraction of teak up-country, as well as trade in gold and forest products and rice, continued to grow. During their tenure in Burma, the British built railways to link Rangoon with Myitkyina in Kachin State and Lashio in Shan State, as well as to Tavoy/Dawei in Tenasserim. They also brought in steamships to provide transport on the Irrawaddy, another way of linking the north and center of the country to Rangoon.
Meanwhile, the Shan princes remained autonomous in their small states, and so, generally speaking, did the Kachin, Karen, and Chin in their hills. Missionaries from Britain and the United States began to convert many Kachin, Karen, and Chin to Christianity.
The Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, and in a few short weeks, they had marched all the way north to Myitkyina, as the British army retreated. Some Burmese at first welcomed the Japanese, as a way of ridding themselves of colonial rule, and fought alongside them. But eventually the pro-Japanese elements in Burma came to realize that they had traded one occupying power for another. Independence was the only answer.
The tide turned in July 1944, when the British-Indian army and special forces from Burma defeated the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima. The Japanese retreated south through central Burma and along the Arakan (Rakhine) coast, surrendering in August 1945. The fighting and sabotage that took place during the war left the country with no infrastructure: railways, bridges, and roads were damaged, and agriculture had been seriously disrupted. Many people suffered from malnutrition, many had lost their homes and livelihoods, and many had died.
After the defeat of the Japanese, the British returned to power in Burma. Concerned about the potential for civil war and the fracturing of the country, Aung San, a young politician, and other Bamar leaders met with representatives of many of the non-Bamar peoples at a conference in Panglong in February 1947. There they hammered out the Panglong Agreement, which affirmed their commitment to a “union of Burma.”
The Panglong Agreement was not to everyone’s taste. Many in the newly formed Burmese army and others, too, feared that giving power and standing to non-Bamar peoples was risky. They did not want the country to splinter, instead favoring a strong centralized model of government in which there was not much room for dissent or difference. The decision to assassinate Aung San that July seems to have originated with this faction.
After intense negotiations, independence from Great Britain came six months later, on January 4, 1948. (The British were in a hurry to divest themselves of their colonies: India and Pakistan had been granted independence the year before.) The various non-Bamar peoples—especially the Karen and Shan—had pressed for some autonomy, a kind of federal structure, without success. The Shan princes had agreed to join the union of Burma, with the proviso that if it didn’t suit them, they would be free to leave in ten years’ time.
The new country, still in ruins following the war, faced many difficulties. Aung San, the man who everyone had assumed had the vision and ability to lead the country in its first years. Was no longer alive. Fighting, demonstrations, and lawlessness broke out all over at independence. There was also an invasion by Chinese forces, who were fighting out the end of the Maoist revolution, and the Karen, Mon, and Rakhine began their battles for their own states. Still, now that the nation was self-governing, with a parliament, a prime minister, and a president, many Burmese were hopeful that they were on the way to a prosperous future.
During the 1950s the army started businesses in order to raise money to modernize, and it slowly gained economic power. But it was stretched thin as it fought various factions in the border areas. In 1959, in an effort to restore order, the army seized power temporarily; it soon passed authority back to a civilian government.
And then in March 1962, the army, under General Ne Win, again overthrew the government and seized power. (Observers have suggested that the army saw itself as the only stabilizing influence in Burma.) The Shan princes were all put in prison, and none of them was seen again. A “socialist” model was established, with industries nationalized, South Asians and foreigners expelled or discouraged from staying, and most links to the outside world, including diplomatic connections, weakened or severed. The economy went into a tailspin. And the army under Ne Win ruled with a heavy hand, with no dissent tolerated.
Thus began twenty-five years of political and economic isolation. Few visitors were allowed in, very few Burmese except those connected to the government could get passports to leave, and the economy stagnated, with no exports and few, if any, legal imports. There was little or no government investment in infrastructure, and only the black market flourished.
In addition, the civil wars raged on in the outlying areas: the Kachin and Mon joined the Karen and Shan in battling for independence or at least autonomy from the central government. Their armies sheltered in the hills and largely supported themselves by trading in opium and heroin; the Karen also traded teak and other hardwoods from the forests.
In 1988, with the economy in ruins and the education system failing, the students of Burma began a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in Rangoon, Mandalay, and elsewhere. The movement caught fire and by early August it had become an outpouring of longing and hope, with thousands out in the streets on August 8. (The protests are referred to by pro-democracy activists as 8-8-88 or the Four Eights, and that anniversary is marked each year.) The protests were smashed by the army in the next five days as they fired on demonstrators, killing hundreds.
But then the army withdrew—no one really understands why—and by mid-August people began to meet and talk about change. Demonstrations, political meetings, and union meetings bloomed. It was a time of hope and optimism, as people exercised freedoms they hadn’t had for a quarter century. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated hero Aung San, mentioned earlier, happened to be in Burma visiting her invalid mother that month (Suu Kyi had been living in England with her English husband and their two sons). The pro-democracy movement sought her help, and when she was one of the speakers at a rally in late August, the crowds were enormous and energized.
The flowering of hope continued for only a few weeks. On September 18, the army went back into action, killing hundreds, a foretaste of what would happen in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square the following year. At the same time, the army put a new constitution in place, setting up the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) under a new leader, Than Shwe, to rule the country. Many students were arrested, and many others fled to the border areas, especially the Thai border. There they tried to join forces with the Karen and Shan armies that had been battling the central government for more than twenty years. It was a difficult time for these other nationalities. Their distrust of Bamar people was deep, and yet here were (mostly) Bamar students who wished to help fight the central government.
Rather than return to England, Aung San Suu Kyi stayed in Burma, and with other people who had been political leaders at one time or another—some of them even former members of the military dictatorship—established a political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). For a while the government allowed her to speak and meet with people, and to make trips out of Rangoon, but in 1989 she was placed under house arrest.
Surprisingly, in 1990 the Burmese government called national elections, presumably because it assumed there would be no strong opposition. But Aung San Suu Kyi became the figure around whom opposition to the government took shape. The result was that the NLD won a huge majority.
The government refused to step down. Many Burmese were put in jail, and Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest until 1995. (In 1991, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights,” her husband and sons accepted the award on her behalf.) Many more activists fled over the border to Thailand as the government embarked on a reinvention of the status quo: Burma was renamed Myanmar, Rangoon became Yangon, and it was announced that a new capital would be built between Mandalay and Rangoon, to be called Naypyidaw. (This was consistent with the history of Burma, in which kings would, on taking power, decide to build a new capital and abandon the previous one.)
At the same time the government, which had been running short of foreign currency, began trading with China. The Chinese invested in the ruby and sapphire mines, the jade mines, and other natural resources. As a result, SLORC had money to buy tanks and equipment so that the army could fight the rebels in the border areas. No longer was there a black market in goods long unavailable in Burma; instead, the country became a huge open market for Chinese manufactured goods, which poured across the border from Yunnan.
By the mid-1990s, the regime had succeeded in pushing back the rebel armies to the border areas, and in negotiating cease-fires with the leaders of some of them. Following these cease-fires, the government opened new areas of the country to tourism. Some Burmese held out hope that the army would also loosen restrictions on speech and political activity. It never happened. The country was newly open for business, and there was a sense of growing prosperity for friends of the government and for some in the cities, but not for any kind of democracy. Political prisoners in Rangoon’s Insein Prison and other prisons around the country numbered in the thousands.
Western countries imposed sanctions, starting in the 1990s (these are now being eased in response to positive political changes in Burma). However, because of the China trade, these sanctions were not very effective. And the discovery of huge oil and gas deposits in the sea off the Burmese coast meant that the government became even less vulnerable to sanctions.
The Burmese army continued a campaign of burning and destruction of villages and of rape and forced labor in the dissident areas, creating a floating population of internally displaced people. Many of them found their way over the borders into India, Bangladesh, or Thailand; others just existed hand to mouth in the hills of Kayin, Kayenni, Mon, Shan, Chin, and Kachin states. (A number of the books in the Annotated Bibliography give a detailed picture of the situation.)
In September 2007, monks began a peaceful demonstration against the government, initially prompted by a rise in fuel prices. It soon mushroomed into massive demonstrations, as thousands of ordinary citizens joined the monks, and the movement became known as the Saffron Revolution. Nineteen years after 8-8-88, technology had changed; this time there were videos of the demonstrations, and people all over the world watched what was happening on their televisions and computer screens. However, once again the army moved in, shooting and beating demonstrators, including monks and nuns. Many monks were jailed; others fled the country.
In 2010, the military regime did away with its uniforms and declared itself a civilian entity. Than Shwe retired. When a national election was held, under a constitution that gave the military the balance of power, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been rearrested in 2003, was once again under house arrest and both she and her party were declared ineligible to run. Nevertheless, with a few of the trappings of democracy in place, some opposition candidates succeeded in getting elected. Observers all agreed that in substance things had not changed: in the outlying parts of the country, the Burmese army still engaged in battles with one or another rebel army, and made vicious attacks on villages, as it had been doing for decades. (Over the years a huge percentage of Burma’s resources has gone to maintain the military, at enormous cost to the whole country.)
After the 2010 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. She was able to speak to the outside world through electronic media, and began to speak to Burmese in small gatherings. But the big shift happened following her meeting with President Thein Sein in August 2011: the government suspended construction of a huge controversial dam on the upper Irrawaddy; about two hundred of the two thousand political prisoners were released; the government lifted blocks on many websites, giving people much more access to the outside world of opinion and commentary and news; and the restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi’s political activity were lifted.
With all this loosening and political evolution, the streets and tea shops of Rangoon felt quite different when I next visited Burma, in November 2011. People told me the changes of the preceding three months were exhilarating. Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father were posted on walls and printed in magazines and in the newspapers, and people chatted more openly and loosely in tea shops. Everyone looked more relaxed and less anxious. Early in 2012, many more political prisoners were released, including those who had been leaders of the demonstrations in 1988 and 2007.
The changes had a huge impact all over the world. Foreign governments that had shunned Burma began to respond positively to the changes. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as her counterparts from Britain, France, and other countries, traveled to Burma to meet with both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, and countries suspended or dropped sanctions and upgraded their level of diplomatic relations with Burma.
It’s important to remember in all this—both the long years of oppression and the current era of more open politics—that people in Burma have found ways of living with dignity and good humor, despite the pressures on them. They have a strong sense of who they are, and like people all over the world, they are concerned about taking care of their children and keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table; they also like to joke and play when they can. Their news has for years come from government-controlled media, but now the news has turned positive, and they have access to a wider range of internet sites, as well as newspapers and magazines that are much less censored.
And so Burma’s history continues to evolve. As I write, in May 2012, there’s a lot of optimism, both in Burma and outside the country. Burmese are relieved that there is more freedom of speech and the promise of more democracy and civil rights. They know that there is powerful opposition to the pro-democracy reforms in the army and elsewhere among the older leadership, but even so people are no longer afraid to talk politics and express opinions. And in the by-elections held in April, Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition candidates won all but one of the forty-five contested seats.
But as Aung San Suu Kyi said at a big rally I attended in Myitkyina in February 2012, there is an urgent need for national reconciliation, and for a “Panglong Agreement for the twenty-first century.” Until then there will be fear and uncertainty in many non-Bamar parts of the country. For example in 2011, after a seventeen-year-long cease-fire with the Kachin Independence Army, the Burmese Army moved in fresh troops and began attacking Kachin villages, creating tens of thousands of internally displaced people. Word is that the army is out of control. And so other groups—the Wa and Karen, for example—fear similar attacks.
Nonetheless, as this book goes to press, positive political change seems to be continuing. (For current news on Burma, the best sources are The Irrawaddy and Mizzima, both published online.) There will of course be many bumps in the road. But the country that looked as if it would forever be locked in a totalitarian purgatory now seems to be committed to a new era of openness. With its rich layers of culture, huge natural resources, and strategic location between China and India, Burma is set to become a powerhouse in Southeast Asia and a major player on the international stage.
© 2012 All rights reserved. Published by Workman Publishing.